When pests attack, the damage can be devastating. Farmers need advice immediately, but to get the correct information on the best control measures takes time. To make matters worse, many countries do not even have any reference material. PestNet helps to overcome these constraints in the Asia/Pacific region. It is an informal network, using email to link people offering advisory services in developing countries.
Pests severely limit agricultural production in tropical countries, and when they attack, the damage can be devastating. Farmers need advice immediately; they cannot wait. But to get the correct information on the best control measures takes time. If insects have to be reared or samples prepared for identification, it is time-consuming. If there is no local taxonomist, and specimens have to be sent overseas, the process takes even longer, and can be costly. To make matters worse, many countries do not have reference collections of insects, diseases and weeds, or adequate libraries to check pest control recommendations. Even if the information is available – in books, journals, CD-ROMs or even online – it is sometimes difficult to interpret or it may not cover all the pests of concern.
PestNet was created in 1999 to help overcome these constraints in the Asia/Pacific region. It is an informal network, using email to link people offering advisory services in developing countries with specialists worldwide. Although originally set up as a service for the Pacific, the network has since expanded to help farmers in Asia. Registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Fiji, PestNet is a free service run entirely by volunteers.
The network deals with topics ranging from quarantine concerns, biological control and pest management issues, pest outbreak alerts, and various forms of the question: ‘what’s this pest and how can I control it?’ It is this last category that has transformed PestNet from a discussion forum into a free online identification service that has proved extremely valuable. Digital photographs of pests attached to messages have yielded quick responses with tentative identifications, often accompanied by offers from taxonomists to examine specimens for confirmation of diagnoses free of charge.
PestNet uses the Yahoo! Groups email listserver, which is configured to allow a moderator to screen postings before they are distributed to members. This is crucial in order to maintain high standards, and to restrict the size of messages, especially those with image attachments. Many members do not have fast computers and modems. The ‘turnaround time’ between the posting of a message and its acceptance by a moderator is a few minutes at most. As an example, quarantine officials in the Republic of Palau recently intercepted and photographed a lizard. The image was sent to PestNet, identified by an institute in Beijing, and confirmed by a specialist in Samoa – all within one hour!
The network’s success is based on its sustainability, free internet systems, and people’s enormous enthusiasm to help developing countries. At present, PestNet has 400 members, more than one-third of whom live in 40 tropical countries, including those in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Members also come from Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. There is an average of 40 postings per month; these are archived on the Yahoo! Groups website and can be searched.
With support provided by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Australia (AFFA), PestNet recently launched a website, www.pestnet.org, and an awareness-raising campaign to promote the expansion of the network. The website explains how PestNet works, provides a directory of online plant protection resources relevant to the region, a pest identification form to be used when sending images, and guidelines for sampling/handling specimens for preservation and identification. The site also features a regularly updated gallery of photographs posted since the inception of PestNet.
What does the future hold for PestNet? One of the aims of the service is to take advantage of modern ICTs to enable grassroots organizations and farmers to access the network. Rural email centres are being set up on various Pacific islands, and these offer exciting new possibilities for linking PestNet more directly with its ultimate beneficiaries. A pilot scheme to test this idea will start soon in the Solomon Islands, with funding from the World Bank, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and AusAID. Four NGOs will collaborate to provide remote communities the opportunity to access timely information on plant pests, especially those that attack staple food crops.
Mat Purea is a plant protection officer for FAO’s Sub-Regional Office for the Pacific Islands in Samoa, Wilco Liebregts is managing director of Eco-Consult Pacific in Fiji, Banpot Napompeth is an advisor for the National Biological Control Research Center and Kasetsart University in Thailand Bob Macfarlane is a national plant exports advisor for the MAF Biosecurity Authority in New Zealand Grahame Jackson currently serves as chair of PestNet.